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Why do Recipe Websites Give you an Essay Before the Recipe? Or, the ~Magic~ of Ads.

 

Cookbooks. They’re great. They don’t have to load their contents, and they usually contain tons of helpful technique information on top of recipes. But they can be expensive, and they don’t always have every recipe you want. So recipe-makers turned into recipe-bloggers. Over time, the content got longer, and longer, and longer… and more websites sprang up out of nowhere with recipes.

And are the essays at the top of the recipe really that annoying?

Longer Websites = More Engagement… With Ads

 

This is the root of the problem. Access to the website doesn’t cost money, but it’s not free. To provide the platform for this recipe, most recipe bloggers use ads. If everything fits onto one scroll-bar’s worth of page, then they only have room for one scroll-bar’s worth of ads. ‘What, so I have to scroll for two minutes because they want more money?’ doubters might say. Well, yeah.

Hosting a website costs money. That doesn’t even include the labor of producing the recipe, taking the photos, and ultimately, creating the content that makes the website tick. Hosting something that other people can anonymously comment on is brutal and often thankless. The essay system allows many websites to keep running even if they’re very small. Recipe bloggers are asking for your time in exchange for free access to a quality recipe, instead of money, like cookbooks would.

Surely, viewers are adaptable enough to understand that, right? Most people are reasonable enough to wait or scroll for content they value… right?

Unfortunately, the end consumer doesn’t know the quality of the recipe before they invest this effort to get to it. It might have five stars, but only produces two servings when four are needed, or it might have five stars, but all the comments noted that ‘it fell apart, but it would be great if it had eggs!’ So it is frustrating to wait for the ads to load, wait for the page text to load, sit there as the auto-play video buffers so you can close it before it makes noise, scroll down so the recipe itself loads, wait as the screen jerks around because the top bar ad still had to load… it feels agonizing to wait for something when Google made it seem so easy and just scraped the ingredients for the slug.

It’s even worse if you don’t know how long it will take for it to finish – unpredictable waiting times make consumers angry!

 

More Engagement = More Ad Revenue – No Matter the Quality

 

Try to assume the worst of the recipe blogger, for a second. Assume the story’s obviously made up, or irrelevant to the final recipe. Assume it’s poorly written, and the narrative style doesn’t capture your attention. You only notice this if you’re actually reading these things or if the website sucks so badly you can’t jump to the recipe. Both of these scenarios mean you’re interacting with the site. The motivation to make the site better and shorter is merely “pleasant feelings from consumers”, but the motivation to keep it as-is would be ad money. If it’s what’s called a ‘click-farm’, then they don’t even care about consumer feelings. Click-farms don’t care about anything but views, they don’t care how many users hate the site, they avoid optimizing on purpose because you stay longer.

You’re more likely to click an ad, accidentally or not, if the website’s laggy, jumpy, or slow. You blame your frustration on that essay, because it’s the only thing you can still see when the site’s lagging, and it’s all totally pointless to you. (My conspiracy theory is that those auto-play videos aren’t meant to actually play a video, they’re there to slow you down. I have no proof of this. Don’t quote me.)

Bad recipe websites make users less tolerant of the ones that don’t make users suffer like this. And it’s not about the essay, it’s about formatting!

Determining a recipe’s worth has become harder because of this essay/ad space system, and frustration caused by poorly optimized websites is now transferred to the website’s format, which is a different thing entirely. Furthermore, click-farm websites exploiting the format get mixed in with the real sites ran by real people, but the end user can’t tell which is which. Recipe websites didn’t used to be like this, and many still remember the good old days. In fact, the good old days are still here, but because so many people are using mobile phones instead of desktop, this essay issue feels more prevalent than it actually is.

 

You’ll probably stay unless the website is atrocious – and they know that

 

I don’t find myself often visiting the same site twice; when I’m looking for a recipe, I usually already know what I want to make, and I’m just looking for a recipe to facilitate that. I, like many people, don’t follow these recipe blogs for ideas. There’re so many websites following the same format that they’re all more or less interchangeable. So it would make sense for a good website to try and outcompete the others by optimizing better, right?

That’s the trick, that website has to show up in the results first for that strategy to be effective. But if they’re new (and if they’re one of the millions of sites with a blueberry muffin recipe) they’ll get sorted to the bottom, and the top sites all follow the winning format because the winning format can pay for their ads. The newbies then have to optimize for the limited number of visitors to their website, which – you guessed it – means following the winning strategy. Increased funding means they can now pay for advertising campaigns, and now they’re one of the horde.

Besides, If I click on a website and realize it’s terrible, I’m still going to wait for it to finish loading. I don’t know if the other websites with similar recipes are going to have the same loading time, so I’m not saving any time if I risk it and find out the second result from the top is also poorly optimized. They’re all playing chicken, and they know that aside from standouts like Allrecipes and other crowd-sourced sites, you really don’t have another option. You won’t leave unless the website’s truly, truly horrible.

 

Personality books and TV – Hope

 

This whole event is so frustrating that cookbooks have come back into fashion, but with online personalities instead of TV ones. Binging with Babish, Sohla El-Waylly, Claire Saffitz – you might not know these people, but they have a big enough following on Youtube to create and sell their own recipe books.

I know these names because they got big – and because they broke through the format that haunts these smaller recipe bloggers. Therefore, I don’t worry that Babish’s website is going to suck because I enjoy his content, and I know the quality is going to be there. I know Sohla is an expert in her field, and I know the recipes she films have worked for me in the past, so I know the cookbook’s going to be decent at minimum. I don’t know that for these recipe bloggers. I’m interested in what Claire has to say about technique, because she went to school for it, and she tells her viewers where these techniques came from. Recipe bloggers screw up techniques (or oversimplify them) all the time, so trusting one feels more dangerous than it should feel.

 

 

Sources:

https://fonolo.com/blog/2018/03/the-psychology-behind-why-customers-hate-waiting/

 

 

Wildly Specific T-Shirts: Why?

You’ve probably seen some variation of the shirt.

Source: ApparelGenix.com

You’re wondering how it’s so wildly specific. You click it, and scroll down, and somehow… somehow the company seems to have made shirts specifically for you, the boyfriend of a Registered Nurse who was born in June, who’s a little crazy with a heart of gold.

And then you notice on other channels, people are getting shirts that say ‘Never mess with a Union Welder born in November with Blue Eyes’. ‘My Boyfriend is a Crazy Libra who loves Fishing and Mountain Biking”. Okay… it’s specific… but no harm, right?

What’s happening?

 

The Ads

 

First, some context. Facebook takes information like birth date, gender, likes and dislikes, etc. to hyper-tailor ads directly to specific individuals. On the advertiser’s side, Facebook allows their advertising customers to modify ads depending on group – companies can make multiple ads for their product to better build a brand image for any one customer’s specific demographic profile.

Picture that a company makes hair gel for adolescents as well as young adults, for example. The adult is looking to impress their coworkers, but the kid just wants to prevent helmet hair. The gel does both, but the ad will change the target customer’s view of the product – is it for skateboarders, or is it for professionals? Only a super generic ad could appeal to both, and generic ads do much worse than targeted ones. Luckily, Facebook’s fine-tuned ad program can determine which set of ads the viewer should be seeing, and the company can make two ads, one for skateboarders, and one for young professionals.

However, that’s time consuming, so many ad vendors allow mix-n-match campaigns, where lines are taken from one ad and put in another. An adolescent’s ad would work for most teens if the wording was a little different – see Axe’s body spray ads. Sometimes the company doesn’t even have to make the new lines themselves, they just include a modifiable blank field in the ad space and they’re good to go.

That’s where things go sideways! A blank line in an insurance ad can tell the user that they’ll be eligible for a rate as low as X$ based on their age and gender. A blank line in a kennel ad knows they’re looking for a medium dog over a small cat based on their search history. A blank line in a T-shirt ad tells them that Facebook knows they’re a Gemini, an accountant, of Swedish descent, a regular fisher, an occasional beer-drinker, and more.

 

Art and More

 

Even worse, bots that work on similar mechanisms have been caught scraping art from artists and slapping it on cheap T-shirts. Since copyright enforcement is dependent on the copyright owner filing for takedown, shirts with that artwork might get sold before the artist even knows something’s amiss. The shirts are frequently poor-quality rips directly from the artist’s social media account, triggered by comments requesting wearable merch or complimenting the work – the bot determines demand and then harvests it, without human intervention, just like the ad T-shirts.

Sure, the artist can request a takedown each and every time the bots snag their art, but it’s a slog, and the company itself never seems to actually do anything meaningful about the violations. It’s also bad for the artist’s reputation: fans complaining to them about the quality of a shirt they bought may be the first time the artist hears about the art theft, and then explaining to someone that they’ve been scammed is only going to make them angrier. It becomes “How could you let this happen” instead of “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize” – everyone loses except for the ad bot’s shirt company.

 

The ‘Why’

 

Before companies like ZapTee and CustomInk, getting a custom shirt meant going to a print shop and paying a hefty price for the final product. As such, shirt companies just didn’t make shirts like these ad bots do. It was unfeasible. If it didn’t sell, it was a waste of production. The closest you could get was “I’m a Proud Mom!” or “Rather be Fishin’”. If you were an artist, and your work was too fringe for major manufacturers to work with, you might have had to buy the screen-printing supplies yourself, build your own website or storefront, source blank shirts, and do things the hard way.

Now, all of that is easily outsourced to these printing companies that specialize in customizable products. The tech has improved so much that they can make money on single shirt sales, where before orders had to be in bulk. It’s honestly incredible. However, customers don’t necessarily understand the mechanisms behind these shirts. The specifics on the shirt are just blank space fill-ins, based on information Facebook gives to the ad. They think they’re seeing a unicorn out in the wild when they see something that relates to them. They’re thinking back to the times where companies couldn’t do this, where everything was geared towards two or three consumer profiles. “Wow, a shirt for Peruvians!” instead of “Oh, Facebook knows I’m Peruvian”.

Or in the case of the art-rippers, they see merch from an artist they really like and respect, and buy it without wondering if it’s official because – once again – they’re thinking back to a time when companies didn’t steal art (not officially, anyway) for shirts. Independent artists had to beg, barter, and network their way onto the front of a T-shirt, there wasn’t any other way to sell art-shirts en masse before silk-screen tech got cheap. Therefore, there’s no way unofficial or stolen art merch exists, it just doesn’t happen!

 

The Marketing

 

A company named Signal decided to take out ads mocking Facebook’s hyper-specific targeting by simply filling in a MadLib with demographic spots.

Source: TheNextWeb.com

 

The result is, shockingly, just like the T-shirts! Facebook already knows you pretty well. A trend of ‘hyper-targeting’ took over once social media websites realized that people guard their info from companies but share it willingly with friends, publicly. As a result, it can pinpoint things like your favorite movie, your favorite color, what items you’ve bought online (and post about), your perfect vacation, and how dark you like your coffee, to name a few, all harvested from comments and posts you share with your friends. Ads then generate shirts out of what the site gathers. You can turn off targeted advertising in Google, but that doesn’t mean they’re not gathering information. It just means you’re not seeing the direct results of that. The only way to fight the hyper-targeting is to be vague and lie to the platforms, or stay off of them altogether.

If you or an artist you know gets their work ripped by bots, combatting it is unfortunately pretty difficult. The best you can do is sometimes just cave and make your own branded products via something like RedBubble or FanJoy. Give customers an official way to support their favorite artist, and most of the time, they’ll take it! Making your social media work obnoxiously and obviously watermarked helps, as does making the preview pic low-quality. Fans need to know that you have official channels, and if they buy from anywhere else, they’re not supporting you. If they like it so much that they want to wear it, they should want the artist to keep making more of it! Make that link between your official purchasing channels and their support of your work clear.

 

Sources:

Reddit.com/r/TargetedShirts

https://www.vox.com/2018/4/11/17177842/facebook-advertising-ads-explained-mark-zuckerberg

https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-50817561

https://www.chowdaheadz.com/products/lunatic-million-words-t-shirt?variant=32657701240917&gclid=Cj0KCQjw–GFBhDeARIsACH_kdb8X6iW6iRfaitNOwytkgKBZ3PqcW3CbvAfEyZ1pJaKjDtr4C0y9YQaAockEALw_wcB

https://thehustle.co/who-makes-those-insanely-specific-t-shirts-on-the-internet/

 

What Happened to Those Obnoxious Banner Ads?

Elizabeth Marketing, Trends October 21, 2020

 

Poorly Drawn Flashing Banner Ad

A poorly drawn banner ad is placed here for comedic effect.

 

Ah, the 2000’s. Remember when all the banner ads above your favorite flash-game website (or in some cases, your favorite news site) were just as bright and colorful as the games themselves? The 2000’s were the first decade with widespread internet access on machines that were finally, finally user friendly enough for children to use. Children, who are easily fooled by bright flashing colors. Children, who can’t imagine that someone would go online and make up a lie about winning an iPad, just to steal their mother’s credit card information. What happened to those banner ads? Not that anybody misses them, but…

 

They Aged Out.

As more and more people become aware of a phenomenon, the less likely they are to fall for it. Banner ads, even non-malicious ones, rarely lead to where they promised in the early days of the internet. If it didn’t end in something unsavory being downloaded to the browser, it could end in a payment portal that the user couldn’t pass, and therefore lost interest in. After all, online payment in that era usually required a credit card or a check, and if the kid was smart enough to not go digging through their parent’s wallets – the banner ad failed at its goal.

People simply grew wise to the ways of the banner ad.

 

They Were Made Obsolete by Other Ads.

While highly personalized ads creep a lot of people out, they’re there for a reason: the user is more likely to click an ad that appeals to them, and those bright, obnoxiously flashy banner ads of the 2000s are just not it anymore, replaced by others that made the individual sites they were hosted on more money.

 

New Software Came Out Specifically to Stop Them from Appearing.

AdBlock is likely the most recognizable browser download designed to make using the internet less annoying. Aside from blocking pop-ups, videos set to auto-play, and other advertising shenanigans, one of the biggest casualties was, you guessed it – banner ads. A lot of people with ad-blocking software don’t even notice they’re gone, which should really be a testament to how difficult it is to make an ad that people both

  1. A) remember and
  2. B) don’t mind seeing.

Browsers even got in on the ad-blocking action! If the browser can keep people from downloading an ad blocker just for a few ads that they absolutely hate, then they don’t have to handle extra stress on the system from whatever third-party software the user is using to block ads. Essentially, some third-party software doesn’t play nice with the browser, but the user doesn’t always know that, and may report issues that are only being caused by the ad blocker. Inconvenient!

This means that browsers themselves may include the option to block banner ads, pop-ups, and auto-playing videos all by themselves. As of this article, Firefox will alert the user to auto-play content!

 

Websites Stopped Selling Adspace to them.

Except for especially seedy websites that don’t care, it’s bad for business when users stop coming to a site just to avoid the ads. Sure, the ad might get a glut of stolen data, misbegotten cookies, and maybe some adware downloaded before people realize what’s up.

But after that initial round of visitors getting a virus, figuring out from where and reporting it, or just giving up on the website – the ad gets kicked. Most blogs know that they live and die by their users clicking their ads. If

someone finds out that the ad isn’t harmless, they’re going to be less likely to click the next ad they see, even if it looks more trustworthy than the traditional flashy banner. Repeat until the website is flooded with angry emails and measurable revenue loss, and the ad is kicked.

It costs the host site money and time for the ad to be unethical, so eventually it just became easier to verify with the ad vendor that the ads weren’t terrible, and voila, natural selection favors harmless ads, and bland ads look more harmless than flashy ones.